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Black Dog - Chapter 38

Olivia ran down the stairs. Her vague suspicions had coalesced, the message from her dreams loud and clear. With a quick glance to check that nobody was about, she pulled herself into human form and grabbed her coat. Draping it across her shoulders, the briefest sop to modesty, she sprinted barefoot out onto the grass, her breath clouding before her face in the dark, her skin burning and freezing. High above, the moon glared down on her like an enormous pale eye, its light silvering everything, all the edges knife-sharp. Olivia stumbled once or twice on clumsy feet, the pull of the moon on her skin almost irresistible now that it had had a taste of her. Her knees hit the ground with jarring force, the ground under her like the deck of storm-tossed ship, the scent of wet grass filling her nostrils almost enough to drown her. Focusing on her breath, she stared numbly at her splayed fingers like no part of her, like fat worms. Shaking, gathering the coat around her, she struggled to her feet, to find Eli watching her silently from a distance. He took the collar and lead from his coat pocket.

"I remember!" Olivia shouted desperately. "I know what..." and she choked on the rest, dropping back to four feet and fur, shrugging off the coat.

Eli reached for her and she snarled, showing her fangs. She backed away, circling and loping off towards the woods. Halfway to the gate in the barbed wire fence, she paused to look back. Eli was closer than she'd expected, still with the collar and lead. Did it matter? She submitted to the collar, the appalling indignity of it faded by the light of her missing memories. She knew exactly what she had to do, and soon Eli would be gone forever.

With the uncovered memories so fresh in her mind, the black dog pulled impatiently on the lead, stalking unerringly through the chaotic labyrinth of the pines, past the cairn of grey stones Nick had called 'the witch's house', to the two immensely old and tall trees that marked the place. Sand scattered the path before their roots, and the air shimmered mirage-like between them. Olivia paused, tail curling unconsciously about her heels. Something in her had thought it best to forget. Instinct warned her away. It took all of her courage to walk between the pines. A faint resistance, a drag on the pads of her paws, and...

On the other side, things looked different. Along reality's torn edges the pines were all dead, brittle and black. The dark soil became sandier. The sky was vast and it howled, ferocious winds buffeting her, abrasive and chaotic. Her thick coat of fur protected her to some extent, but the coarse air of the place burned her unprotected eyes and nose.

'The night between worlds'. That was what Verity had called it in her notes, although Olivia hadn't known what she was talking about, then. A werewolf, standing between worlds as she did by her nature, could find it easily, instinctively. She could roam it, finding other doorways to other worlds. She could find the way through to wherever it was Eli called home, before he'd lost his way all those years ago, stranded on the wrong side of the night.

They weren't alone. Shadowy figures in the distance flitted in and out of sight as quick as bats in twilight, never close enough to make out their features or catch their scent on the wild winds.

Olivia stumbled forward, her nose to the ground, uncertain where to begin. For Eli to bring her here, Olivia must have something no-one else could provide, some sense unique to her strange kind, something she'd never had the chance to train and develop. Some instinct or other must kick in. She had to find the way.

The hours dragged by, inconclusive. Mapping the dark and featureless place was impossible. Following any kind of scent with her nostrils stinging so badly was impossible. Somewhere, in a sky far behind them, the moon began to sink, and the change ached deep inside Olivia's chest. She wouldn't be able to survive here come morning, she knew that instinctively. These winds would flay her alive. She'd failed before (she remembered now) but Eli would not allow her to give up. He'd bring her back here to try again, if not next month, then the month after; if not her, then some other poor soul.

She redoubled her efforts, concentrating so hard on honing her unnamed new senses that she almost didn't realise Eli had spoken to her. A short sharp jerk of the lead corrected that failing.

"Time to go!" Eli shouted over the roaring wind. "Turn around!"

Since Eli was even more lost than Olivia, the direction 'turn around' was obviously not to be taken literally. Nevertheless, Olivia had to turn a quick circle just to satisfy the itch, while she despaired at the thought of how she'd ever find her way home again. That burden sat squarely on her shoulders, but home pulled harder than even the call of the moon, and the journey back was not easy, but easier. Her heart leapt for joy at the sight of the ancient twin pines, and she walked through them with no resistance, the night between worlds spitting out the distasteful live creature into cold dawn. When she looked back, there was nothing behind her but innocuous woodland.

She'd failed.

As Eli and Olivia emerged from under cover of the trees, the sky still glittered faintly with stars, the valley below populated with orange streetlights. Jim waited for them at the back door, hunched into his coat against the fine drizzle of rain slowly but surely soaking him through.

"Where's your keys?" Eli asked as they approached the house.

Olivia growled. She'd changed the locks to keep them out. But she was so tired, and she wouldn't be able to unlock the door by herself just yet, and the thought of stretching out on the sofa was so much more appealing than curling up under the bushes in the back garden, with rain drops dripping on her. She found her abandoned coat, lying in a puddle, and pawed unsuccessfully at the pocket where she'd left her shiny new key.

Eli let them in, and Olivia shied away from the smell of the pantry, something forgotten rotting there. Inside the darkened house, her sensitive nose could pick out a half a dozen varieties of mould, but it would all have to wait. She went straight to the sofa, her limbs trembling, her eyelids heavy. She would sleep, and when she woke, she would be human again. She heard the clink of china and the sound of running water, and as she drifted on the brink of sleep, she was disturbed by the sound of a newspaper hitting the coffee table too close to her head, making her flinch. Finding herself still in canine form, she permitted herself a reproachful growl before closing her eyes again, listening to the loud clatter of crockery in the kitchen, the gurgle of the kettle.

"Olivie!" Eli called, and she snorted in irritation, flopping off the sofa and padding into the kitchen, where she found a bowl of water on the floor.

Her face was in it before she could think. Cool fresh clean water. She drank deeply and messily, soothing her parched throat. Eli got out a second bowl.

"It's in here somewhere," he muttered to himself, rummaging through the depleted stores of the pantry. "Knew you'd come round sooner or later."

The second the tin opener punctured the lid the smell assaulted Olivia's nostrils, sickening and exciting her gnawing hunger at the same time. Dog food. Offcuts and offal and slimy wet jelly, how repulsive and delicious a thought that was. She'd eat it, and be glad, and then she was going to be so sick in the morning.

She could almost imagine he'd gone out of his way to find the cheapest, nastiest dog food available but she stared at it as it went into the bowl, glistening brown wet stuff. She ate it greedily, well aware how disgusted and ashamed she'd be in the morning, still unable to stop herself.

While outside the first hint of dawn seeped across the sky, Olivia sank exhaustedly onto the cold kitchen tiles and slept.

It seemed only moments later that the morning chorus of small birds swelled to a crescendo of tweeting and chirping, and Olivia woke naked and shivering, human and horrified. She barely held on to her breakfast, with the thought that it would be even worse coming up than it had been going down. She scrambled for the living room and yanked the blanket from the back of the sofa, wrapping it tight around herself.

Eli had been waiting for her there in the armchair by the French windows, like some horrible king of abandoned places. "You remember?" he said, harking back to their aborted conversation last night.

She nodded, mute with her jaw clenched against her violent shivers. Her legs were shaking badly.

"Hm." He regarded her thoughtfully, annoyed. "You going to cause trouble?"

She shook her head vehemently.

"Right then. Going to try again tonight?"

The night between worlds. Olivia hesitated, then nodded.

"You going to tell Imogen?"

This required more thought, but Imogen would not like it if Eli disappeared one night, never to return. No, Imogen would not like that at all. Olivia shook her head.

"Good girl."

*

Six months passed since Olivia first willingly and knowingly walked the night between worlds. Each month she returned to the house and the woods. Each month she failed to find the way. Each month she went back into town, to her steady job and her single room, to wait until she was useful again. The burden of this task had driven Giles to desperation. Olivia thought everyday of refusing it, but Eli would surely find her again if she ran or hid, and then… She didn't know what would happen then. She didn't care to find out.

She had the electricity turned back on at the house, a steaming hot bath could be a great comfort. She filled the pantry with things that would keep, again for her own comfort. When she saw Verity still roaming the churchyard, she let the thin miserable wretch have a key and a room out of the elements again. She made amends properly with Auntie Imogen, who must never know the true purpose of these visits.

"My job comes first," Olivia explained one day, and it was certainly true. She didn't want to mess it up like she had at the library, with constant absences and poor explanations. "But Mr Green knows my condition and he's very accommodating. It was his idea that I come back to the house every month so I can rest in the countryside." This wasn't entirely untruthful either. Mr Green shut up shop over the full moon, several times mentioning his country house where he liked to retreat for peace and privacy. "I don't like to inflict my 'monthlies'" - Olivia used the euphemism Grace used - "on the girl I room with. Or you, of course." That was the excuse for the night-time walks in the woods.

During the day, Olivia spent her visits doing light work to make the house more like her home. As spring began to bloom and brighten, she planted a herb garden to fill the air with pleasant scents that might soothe her: rosemary, sage, basil and mint. She bought new clean bedclothes for her room. She threw out the dead houseplants, assuaging Auntie Imogen by making sure the house had bright freshly cut flowers each month. She dreaded the fallout when she finally succeeded in her searching, but for the time being, everything ran as smoothly as she could hope.

Another month, another visit. From the train station, Olivia walked the path that would take her through the graveyard. Bees and butterflies were her only accompaniment, though she could hear the shouts of children playing somewhere not so far away. The sun sat low, a gleaming golden disc, and the crumbling gravestones of the old part of the graveyard glowed with life, like islands and archipelagos in the sea of lush green grass and towering weeds that threatened to overtop them all. She found Eli in the shadow of the churchyard's toolshed, glaring mistrustfully at a lawnmower that was quite possibly an antique. Olivia trudged on towards the house without a word of greeting to Eli, and he fell in silently behind her. Halfway there, a slender figure in a black dress rose up out of the long grass, slinking after her as well, curious. There was thick new grass over Verity's grave, the ugly scar in the land long covered over.

It seemed Verity had also made amends with Imogen. Late in the afternoon, the two of them settled in front of the fire with a family photo album, which was unfortunately of the right era to contain plenty of embarrassing pictures of Olivia.

"Just look at her chubby little face!" Verity squealed, enjoying Olivia's embarrassment far too much.

"Oh, dear! Here she is in the bath," said Imogen.

"Auntie, please."

"Doesn't she look so serious," Verity remarked.

"Oh, yes. It's her father's eyes, you know, he had the same look. He was a beautiful baby. But we're always such beautiful babies in this family."

Olivia glanced over, raising her eyebrows. It seemed unkind to talk about such things while Verity was around. With her figure unchanged by the passing months, Verity's own baby was either dead or had only ever been a figment of her imagination. Nobody wanted to bring it up directly, although Imogen's tactless harping on the subject of babies was obviously beginning to grate on Verity's nerves. Her wounded pride healed slowly if at all, leaking resentment in sly glances.

While Imogen continued to flip contentedly through the album, Verity munched biscuits and scowled at Eli. Her actions were quite obviously intended to annoy him in some way, but honestly it only irritated Olivia, who'd been the one to pay for all the provisions. Even after her death, Auntie Imogen had wanted the kitchen stocked with fancy biscuits and the good tea. Lately, when Olivia was sent out with long shopping lists, she went out of her way to find the economy brands, a small revenge for her meal of dogfood. Not that Eli ever seemed to notice, Olivia reflected as she sipped her own cup of cheap bitter tea.

Olivia stretched, yawned, tapped her watch to see if it was still going (it wasn't) and then got up, pacing the length of the living room restlessly. "It's getting late," she said to the room at large. "I'll be changing soon. Nobody wants to see that, I suppose."

Verity wrinkled her nose. "I know I don't."

"Well I don't want to see you stuffing your face like that. Why are you even doing that? You're not supposed to eat - ask your favourite expert on the subject."

"I don't care," Verity declared, spraying crumbs. "I like biscuits," and she crammed another into her mouth.

"I'm going to do the washing up, since nobody else ever does," Olivia grumbled.

"Put the kettle on, since you're up," said Eli, not looking up from his newspaper.

"Do it yourself!" Olivia didn't actually want him to - she needed a few minutes away from him. "Verity, come and help me with the washing up, won't you?" she asked, as nicely as she could.

"Shan't," Verity shot back, her eyes bright with defiance.

"Verity," said Eli wearily, "go and help with the washing up."

Verity's eyes went round and furious at this betrayal, but all she did was stick out her tongue and flounce off to the kitchen. "Do you have any more of those nice biscuits?" she asked, hunting about for them, and Olivia sighed.

"You know, I distinctly remember Eli telling Siobhan that… your kind aren't supposed to eat," she told Verity quietly. "And you can't still be hungry, even if you were when you started the first pack."

Verity shrugged. "Maybe I am, maybe I'm not."

"If you're doing something you're really not supposed to, he'll just tell you to stop and you won't have a choice."

Verity smiled enigmatically. "But he'll have to tell me, first."

Olivia dropped the subject for something more important, grabbing the spare moment of privacy while the kettle boiled to ask about something that had been worrying her for a while. Naturally she'd spent a lot of time thinking about Verity's death and the injustice of leaving her killer to go unpunished, and she told Verity so. Verity gave her that pinched, peevish look for dragging up the painful subject again, but Olivia had never before asked Verity about her family, or her friends outside the house. Well, it had seemed insensitive to ask, back when they'd all thought Verity's family must be long dead. Now, things were different. Wasn't there anybody who cared for Verity in the outside world of the living? Anybody who might be searching for her now that she'd disappeared into the twilight world of the undead?

This question was met with pinch-lipped silence, then, carefully neutral, "I doubt it."

"No family at all?"

"No one who gives a damn."

"No friends who might be wondering where you've vanished to?" Olivia pushed.

"All my friends are dead," Verity announced loudly, then looked decently sheepish at her melodramatic outburst. "Well, they are."

It was the answer Olivia had been hoping for, selfishly. Verity had slipped between the cracks while nobody was looking. She wasn't Olivia's problem, awful as it was to admit that thought. She opened the window to let in the big black cat, Banana, along with several drab moths drawn by the light of the kitchen, then stood a while and watched the sky darkening to a deep indigo.

The longer Olivia and Eli's truce held, the more likely Imogen would find out what was going on, one way or another. Olivia dreaded her aunt's reaction if she discovered that Olivia was trying to aid beloved Eli's escape from the mortal realms. Verity might not have the sense to keep the secret, or might deliberately air it for her own wicked amusement. Olivia watched the odd girl sitting on the floor and fussing over the black cat. There were definitely less cats about, these days. Olivia had wanted to rehome them, remembering Reverend Milton's offer of help in that regard (and wondering if he'd even meant to fulfill his promises on that relatively insignificant matter) but Auntie Imogen wouldn't stand for it. Olivia had tried to tell her the poor creatures would starve with nobody around to feed them regularly - Mrs Allsop down the hill was getting on in years and couldn't be expected to do it indefinitely - but the cats either managed somehow or they drifted away from the house. It upset Auntie Imogen, but it couldn't be helped, and she had her ghost cats to dote on.

Not for the first time, Verity's eyes wandered to the accumulated stack of dirty dishes and teacups. Olivia wondered how long Verity could avoid the task she'd been set. She'd want to test her limits, of course. Dead or not, Verity was still Verity, chafing at restraints.

"I'll wash up," said Olivia, "and you can dry when you're ready."

Verity just scowled at her. "He's so mean," she said at last. "What does it matter to him if I help you with the dishes or not?"

"I expect he wanted you out of his hair for ten minutes. You do follow him about."

"Hmm, yes, about that... how's your little quest going?"

Olivia kept her eyes fixed on the sink full of dirty dishes. "What do you mean?"

"You think you can get him away from here," Verity hissed. "That's why you keep coming back every month."

"Oh, that," said Olivia, her heart sinking. "Well you don't need to worry about that. I don't think it's ever going to happen." She'd begun to suspect as much some time ago, and even if she could manage it somehow, it couldn't hurt to lay a false trail in case of Imogen listening in again. "It's easier to humour him, but what does he need to go back for? He's got friends here. If he could learn to... What?"

Verity was shaking her head sadly, smiling an infuriating little smile at Olivia's ignorance. "Sleep. Everything needs to sleep, Olivia." She certainly looked tired enough herself, tired enough to sleep for a year, deep dark circles under her once-pretty eyes. "You sleep, I sleep, Imogen sleeps. What makes you think Eli is any different from the rest of us?"

Olivia stared at her in disbelief. "He needs to sleep? He's been putting me through all this because he's tired and grumpy and wants to go to bed? Why can't he sleep here?"

"Because that's not how it works," said Verity, affecting a Mona Lisa smile.

"You mean you don't know," said Olivia sharply. "For all your reading - of my books, I might add - you don't know."

They finished the washing up in silence, and Olivia returned to the sofa with a book. Her eyes skimmed over the same paragraph five or six times as questions nagged at her. What was the worst that could happen if Eli never got back to wherever it was he belonged? She'd heard once that lack of sleep killed people eventually - would it kill Eli? How long would it take? Eli wasn't exactly a person, so it might take years, or decades. It might take centuries yet, for all Olivia knew.

She'd have to stick with what she was doing. Even if she never succeeded, at least she could go to her grave knowing she'd tried her hardest.

 

*

The change came far later than usual that night, catching her like an unexpected sneeze while she was pottering around the house looking for something more useful to do. Finally. She nudged the living room door with her snout and padded in to bark at Eli.

Verity, who'd looked satisfyingly alarmed by the sudden appearance of the huge shaggy black animal, quickly composed herself. "Who's a good doggy, then? Time for walkies!" Giggling, she ruffled the thick fur of Olivia's neck, her many rings and bracelets catching the hair in a dozen painful pinches. Olivia pulled away, showing her fangs, but Verity just bared her own teeth in a mock growl. The white cat she'd been fussing over had inflated into a furiously hissing ball of white fluff.

"Oh! Get her out of here!" Imogen shrilled, shrinking away. "She's frightening Genghis!" With shaking hands she shooed Olivia and Eli both out. "Go on, get out! And don't come back in the house like that again!"

Olivia slunk away with her tail between her legs. She knew she was big and cumbersome, but under all the fur she was still Auntie Imogen's own favourite niece. She went out into the night with Eli.

 

*

The night was another failure. In the grey light of half past five in the morning, Olivia sat dejectedly on the step outside the back door, warming her hands on a cup of cheap nasty tea. She wanted to go home, but first she had to gather sufficient strength to walk down to the train station. She had a packet of biscuits, taste and texture as appetising as sawdust, open beside her on the step and she was working her way steadily through them without thinking about it much.

"Still at it, are you?" hissed a voice in her ear.

Olivia nearly jumped out of her skin. Recollecting her scattered wits and wiping droplets of tea from her skirt, she did her best to ignore Verity looming over her.

"I do know what you expect to find, out there in the woods," Verity reminded her. "You want to hurt Imogen like that, do you? Helping him to leave her?"

"He doesn't have any plans to leave," said Olivia wearily. Even as she said it, she knew it was true. "He's like a cat who's too used to three square meals a day and a warm place by the fire," she explained sleepily. Maybe she could just lie down in the grass and sleep there for a few minutes. "You know, like that grubby old tom, the black one with one eye, whose fur sticks out all over the place? Expects you to feed him, but hisses at anybody who comes near him."

The analogy was apt enough for Verity's vivid imagination and she giggled, the sound grating on Olivia's tired ears. "Oh, yes. I'm going to tell him that, next time I see him. Where is he, anyway?"

"He's gone hunting," Olivia answered at once, her mind still set in that obedient canine groove. "Rabbits," she added with a shiver of disgust.

When Verity didn't leave, Olivia continued to talk, pathetically grateful even for bad company. It physically hurt to be alone around the full moon, cut off from her family and all the friends she'd fallen out of touch with. She rambled on about the morning not so long ago when she'd woken naked and disoriented in the woods. She remarked that she couldn't quite believe Eli was content to subsist on rabbits alone for hundreds of years, and what a relief it would be if she could finally get him safely back where he belonged, far away from innocent people. Olivia had clung to that last thought all through the long weary months, and she was unprepared to let go of it.

Verity tittered. "You haven't thought that through, have you? Haven't got all the information. Poor Olivia," she sighed exaggeratedly. "Not playing with the full deck of cards, are you?"

Olivia let the insult go, more worried by the idea of what Verity might have thought of that she hadn't. "What?"

"He'll only come back again."

"No," said Olivia, clinging doggedly to her plan, stubborn and slow on three days with no sleep. "I'm going to get rid of him, and then he's going to be gone."

"Aww, how precious. You think you're doing something noble and heroic, don't you?"

Olivia almost nodded in agreement, stopping herself just in time. "What?"

"How could you miss it? I gave you all my notes. His kind come and go, to sleep in their own realms and hunt here. Or, that's how it's supposed to go. As far as I can tell, Eli's under some sort of curse, so he'd probably still need you, and he'd still have you. This is a binding contract, Olivia."

Olivia stared at her. "But… I don't… I didn't sign any contract…"

"You're his," Verity crowed, overcome with glee at ruining Olivia's day before it was six hours old. "You belong to him as much as I do."

 

 

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